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THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 1
By George Melville Bolling
Ohio State University
In teaching the "Tenses" of the Greek verb the difficulties we
encounter seem to me to be threefold. In the first place, the pupil
meets with a new category, "kind of action," for which his native
language offers him no parallel, and for which his experience with
Latin can give him at the best but slight preparation. To acquire
a feeling for such distinctions is difficult; but the student does
triumph over harder things than this, and will in the end probably
adapt himself to this phase of the situation. One of these harder
things is the second difficulty, which is of a diametrically opposite
nature. About the expression of temporal distinctions the Greek
language is, as compared either with Latin or with a modern
language, surprisingly indifferent. And indifference toward a
category recognized by his native language is a state of mind most
difficult for a naive speaker to attain. For him such distinctions
are necessary forms of thought, and he has a touchingly childlike
confidence that somehow they are made in the new language — -if
only he may discover how. Indeed, such feelings, backed by the
habit of interpreting language in the light of logic and not of
psychology, have left their mark upon our Greek grammars, but
that is a chapter in the history of linguistic studies that still remains
to be written.
These difficulties he in the nature of the subject and are unavoid-
able. So far as they are concerned the present paper has nothing
to offer except a plea for more frankness in recognizing and dealing
with them. But the third — and to my mind the worst — difficulty
is of our own making, or rather a part of our inheritance, and I
believe that we can and should free ourselves of it.
This difficulty is created by the fact that we insist upon using
one term, "tense," to designate two categories — tense properly so
1 Read at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle
West and South.
THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 105
called and aspect — and, what increases the confusion, two categories
that are by no means coextensive. The recognition of these cate-
gories goes back to Curtius, and so unfortunately does the effort
to bind them together in terminology. Instead of giving to these
categories separate names, he clung to the traditional rubric and
endeavored to bring under it his new idea: the tenses tempora,
Zeitformen have two functions, the expression of Zeitstufe, and
Zeitart. The terms thus coined have passed into English termi-
nology in translations that have added to the confusion, as may be
seen from Gildersleeve, "Brief Mention," .4/P, XXXVII, 112 f.
That what Curtius had in mind could not properly be designated
Zeitart has long been recognized in the scientific grammar of Ger-
many, and the term has been corrected in syntactical discussions to
Aktionsart with much profit in resulting clearness of thought. 1
Of the results of this resolution to put two quarts into a one-
quart jug, it seems hardly necessary to speak. Still I may be
permitted to call attention to one or two things which our present
terminology does for us. We teach the student to speak of present
optative, aorist optative (which he interprets past optative), perfect
optative, future optative — and then tell him that the difference
between these tenses is not one of time. It is the same with the
participle, infinitive, and subjunctive — only here the student is
inclined (not unreasonably) to want also an imperfect and future
subjunctive. Then the terms perfect, pluperfect, future perfect,
have for him definite ideas — that these forms express the completion
of one action at a time prior to the occurrence of another action.
The Greek forms thus misnamed express nothing of the sort, and
indeed all expression of "relative" time is foreign to the verbal
forms of the Greek language.
However, it is not my wish to dwell upon the imperfections of
the traditional system. I prefer to try to show something better
that may be put in its place. I shall do that in the form of a
treatment of the subject such as might, I believe, be given in a
beginner's Greek book. It would run somewhat as follows:
1 Stahl, to be sure, reverted to the form Zeitart, but that is properly condemned
as a gliicklich iiberwundener Begrijf in Brugmann-Thumb, Griechische Grammatik,
p. 540, n. 1.
106 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL
TENSE AND ASPECT
For speakers of English the most important category of the
verb is that of tense. Except the infinitive, no form of our verb
can be used without expressing the time of the action. Further-
more, we are in the habit of analyzing and expressing temporal
relations with a great deal of nicety and distinctness. Such habits
are, however, neither necessary forms of thought (as they appear
to one who knows no language but English) nor are they universal.
There are languages which do not express any of these temporal
relations in the forms of their verbs. These languages have no
tenses. The fact may seem surprising, but a little reflection will
show that such ideas can be expressed in other ways — by the order
of words, by adverbs, by prepositional phrases — as clearly as may
On the other hand, many languages have a category, not found
in English, which may be called the manner or the aspect of the
action. The actions of which we speak may, if we wish, be classified
according to a number of points of view. For instance, we could
put into one class all actions that are gradual processes of change,
such as grow, decay, wane; or all actions that are momentary, such
as find, hit, reach; all that have duration, such as live, grieve, hunt;
all that consist in the execution of a series of practically identical
movements, such as walk, run, swim, etc. But the fact that these
actions are of these different sorts receives no recognition in our
language, we have no forms of the verb that show to which class
any action belongs. In some other languages, on the contrary, such
differences are expressed in sets of forms which are in outward
appearance comparable with our tense forms, and which may be
called the aspects of the verb. The speaker of such a language
cannot speak of an action without showing by the form used to
what aspect it belongs; just as the speaker of English cannot speak
of an action without designating its time, without putting it in
Now English and Greek — and I may add practically all the
languages of Europe and the most important languages of Persia
and of India — are descended from a language in which the category
of aspect was richly developed, while the category of tense hardly
THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK 107
existed at all. In general, the history of the languages of this
family shows a greater and greater development of the tenses and
correspondingly a greater and greater restriction of the aspects.
The final outcome may be seen in English, while Greek represents
a stage quite close to the beginning of the process.
THE GREEK ASPECTS
In Greek, aspect is the most prominent category of the verb.
It is distinguished in all forms (with certain reservations for the
future to be mentioned below) in all the voices, in all the moods, in
the infinitives, and in the participles.
There are three aspects to which the student must attend, and
which may be described as follows:
In the linelike aspect are expressed actions which are regarded
as developing in a way comparable with the tracing of a line by
a moving point, both ends of the line being ordinarily outside of
the speaker's view; the line may be either continuous or dotted.
Instances of such actions may be seen in: "I hunted for my knife,"
"I was writing a letter," "I used to write a letter every day."
In the pointlike aspect the speaker's attention is either con-
centrated upon a single point in the action, the beginning, as "he
fell sick," or upon the end, the upshot of the action, as "he gained
the victory"; or the whole action, no matter how long its actual
duration, is in the speaker's view reduced to a single point, and its
occurrence is asserted as a simple fact, as "He reigned thirty years."
In the resultant aspect is expressed the existence of a condition
resulting from a preceding action, as "He is dead," "I am robbed,"
"The door stands open."
THE GREEK TENSES
The tense system of the Greek verb is extremely simple, there
being no forms to denote "relative time," no forms to show that
one act is contemporary or prior to another. Such ideas are either
expressed by adverbs or by prepositional phrases, or are left to
be inferred from the context.
There are three tenses which are used as follows: The present
tense might perhaps better be called an indefinite tense, for it
108 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL
denotes not only the specific present, "I am now writing," but
also the past (historical present), the future, "I go tomorrow,"
and is used for universal propositions true at all times, "Twice
two is four." It occurs only in the linelike and the resultant
The past tense is used of past actions in all three aspects.
Formally it is characterized by a prefix known as the augment and
described in a following section.
The future tense, however, bears evidence of being a recent
development, for in the first place futurity is expressed also by
other means, especially in subordinate clauses, from many types
of which the future is excluded. Secondly, the distinction of the
aspects has not been carried out systematically in this tense,
although the language can be seen working toward that goal. The
resultant aspect has a separate form, but this is confined almost
wholly to the passive voice. The other forms are used indiscrimi-
nately for linelike and pointlike action, except that such verbs as
happen to have two forms of the future show a tendency to dif-
ferentiate them in this fashion.
The tenses are confined to the indicative mood. The only
exceptions are due to the development of the future. They are:
(i) use of a future participle to attribute to a substantive as a
quality the condition of being about to perform an action; (2) use
of modal forms (optative, infinitive) for the purpose of representing
the future indicative in indirect discourse.
The relation of these aspects and tenses may be presented in
the accompanying table on the synopsis of the verb Xwo (p. 109).
It will be noticed that the symmetry of the system breaks with
the addition of the future tense.
The space, some three pages, devoted to this introductory matter
may seem large, but it, supported by the terminology, will give
the bulk of the syntax of the tenses needed in the beginner's book.
1 The reason is that we feel the present as a portion of time that has some exten-
sion, and consequently cannot be filled by a pointlike action. As soon as we mark off
a point, however near to us, we must refer it either to the future or to the past. Notice
that in English we cannot say "I am now finding my knife," while "I find my knife"
would be used only as a historical present, or in vivid anticipation of the future.
THE TEACHING OF THE "TENSES" IN GREEK
What still requires treatment can on this basis be presented
in a simpler fashion than is usually done. I will illustrate by
indirect discourse, which I should present somewhat as follows:
When a statement is quoted in indirect discourse the following
principles are to be observed :
I. The aspect of the verb is of course not affected by the change.
SYNOPSIS OF THE VERB Aw.
Forms without Tense
Linelike 1 . Illiii
Pointlikef^ 1 111
♦Periphrastic forms are generally used; cf. § — .
t With its representatives in indirect discourse, Awoifu, kvo-ew.
II. Where there is a distinction between past and present tenses
of the indicative (i.e., in the linelike and resultant aspects), this
distinction must disappear when the mood is shifted to the infinitive
or the optative. For the representation of the future there are
separate forms — future infinitive, future optative — -that are not
no THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL
III. The mood is shifted in two ways: (a) After certain verbs
of saying (including <f>t)ni) and of thinking the main verb of the quoted
statement is put in the infinitive, (b) Other verbs of these classes
(including elirov, and frequently \iya>) are followed by quotations
introduced by on or ws and a finite verb. After present tenses of
these verbs no change (except the necessary changes of person)
can be made. After past tenses of these verbs the verb of the
quotation may be changed to the optative, but even in this case
past tenses of the indicative in the linelike and resultant aspects,
when quoted, are usually allowed to remain unchanged, confusion
with the present indicative being thus avoided.
Whether such a system of presentation does or does not bring
into a more easily intelligible relationship the facts of the Greek
language and the terms employed in the teaching of these facts,
is a question that must be left to the decision of others. If the
verdict be in the affirmative, there is hardly room for further argu-
ment as to the course that we should follow. One objection, how-
ever, I should like to forestall. How is the student to pass from
such a beginner's book to the Greek grammar ? Well, back of the
beginner's book should be a grammar that will present the facts
on the same basis. The purpose of our teaching is and must be to
give to our students the power of reading Greek. Our present
terminology has no value except as a means to that end ; and, if a
better means can be found, our present terminology will have no
value except for students of the history of Greek grammar.